Beautiful … and ugly: My pact with Jared Noel

I made a pact with Dr Jared Noel, who died four years ago today. He would give me his story, and thereby establish the writing career I had always wanted, and I would continue to tell his story, whenever possible.

His book, Message to My Girl, was published a year after his death. It wasn’t my preferred version, or even the one Jared and I had planned to write. The first drafts were written more like a Tuesdays With Morrie—a record of our conversations in Jared’s final weeks, and my observations of what he called ‘the business of dying’.

I didn’t complete a full version of these early drafts, but whenever I’ve revisited them over the past four years I have always discovered more that I wish we had published. Much of it has never seen the light of day. It hasn’t been corrected or proofread or signed off, but I think there’s still value in releasing portions at a time.

The following is a complete never-before-published chapter called ‘Becoming Real’. It was a favourite of mine because it records a particularly rich conversation with Jared around marriage, regret, faith and doubt, and church community. And it gives what I think is a compelling picture of how our conversations in his last month typically went. It’s a long piece, but I publish it all … for Jared.

 

Becoming Real

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be careful kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’

—Marjory Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

In the photos Jared smiles his signature smile, all dimples, and innocence, and joy and delight. Photos of Jared with Hannah, photos of Jared and Hannah with Elise, photos of Jared just with his daughter. They are on the walls, in magazines, wedged above the vanity mirror on the sideboard in the bedroom. One that I love has Jared and Hannah holding hands, on a beach, the ocean to their backs, their bare feet on sand, touched by wind, touched by water, touched by one another. Photos of romance and life, of hope and never-ending happiness. So much life. Photos captured on more innocent days than this. Days of plans, and dreams, and vision and purpose. 

There are photos captured on other days too. Photos that tell two stories. They say the camera never lies, but here is proof the camera tells half truths. Or perhaps the camera tells fuller truths. Images of joy and contentment, family life, happiness, celebration, and behind the images something else beside. Something unseen, not captured, and more than a vignette encroaching on the image. A shadow of something far more sinister that evades the shot but is there nevertheless. The shadow of Jared’s illness.

And then there are my photos, documenting Jared’s daily decline. Jared frowning, Jared compliant, Jared off colour, Jared bored. Looking at the camera, looking away from the camera. Smiling broadly despite himself. Looking absent in spite of himself. Jared sitting patiently while I shoot random images from here, or from there, against the light, with the light, front on, from the side, let’s try the other side. One day I build a mosaic, from shots up close. Jared’s temple, his forehead, his ear, his cheek, Jared’s nose, and lips, his bearded chin, then his eyes. The closer I get the more life I see. Micro signs of life that the engagement and wedding and family photos don’t show. Dandruff. Bits of wax. The stray hairs of his moustache. The flecks of yellow and white in the corners of his eyes. The vein in his temple. The sweat on his brow. The hair pulled behind his ear. A spot of moisture on his beard.

They say the camera never lies. And what the camera sees are the signs of life. Everywhere it looks, every image it captures, every frame he fills … Jared is here, breathing, awake. His spirit is present. Sure, his colour is all wrong. The subject is static. The smile is forced. But the camera never lies. Jared is alive. Jared is Real.


 

Two days have passed, because we’ve had Sunday to recuperate. It’s raining again, as miserable as it was when I saw him last. I convince myself that it must be easier to prepare for dying when the weather is so horrible. The sunshine is cruel. It reminds Jared what he’s missing out on. The rain, particularly rain as cold as this, is something we curl up against—close our eyes, enter darkness, wait for the next warm light to come.

But Jared is animated today, in defiance of the outside conditions once again. There’s a buzz about him. I realise it’s a leftover energy from the weekend activity—a wine and cheese night with family on the Saturday night, and a visit from his faith community friends on the Sunday. It’s remarkable how much of a lift the connection with people has given him. His extroversion, and the strength he draws from it, is on full display. He confirms what I have come to understand about genuine human connection—it has healing properties, and generates its own energy at a level deeper even than where Jared is experiencing fatigue. The colour in his face, the dance in his eyes, and the clarity of his conversation, are like a last line of defence against the degeneration.

Jared tells me a story from his clinical training days. It’s a story indicative of the theme that’s been emerging from our ongoing dialogue, but which comes to the fore today. The theme is life itself, in all its harsh contradictions. Jared himself personifies this. At least, his life story does. Hope set against the bleak reality of suffering. Moments of joy that lift the narrative beyond the ordinary, followed by moments of deep sadness and irreconcilable disappointment. It’s not so much a roller coaster, Jared’s story, as a length of rope, both realities woven together, distinguishable one from the other, but utterly inseparable. The beauty and the ugliness, the sacred and the profane, the glorious and the broken. 

The result is a Jared who is very much Real, Real as the Skin Horse from The Velveteen Rabbit. There’s an authenticity about Jared that feels like it’s been forged on an anvil, so that whether he’s talking about pain or talking about love, he does so with his eyes fully open.

And on this wet and cold Monday in September, 2014, the two of us settle in for a discussion about life—authentic life. The type of life only those who have opened their eyes to both things that are wonderful and to things that are terrible, can hope to experience. Things like love and romance, loneliness, work, Christmas, chemotherapy, parenthood, guilt—all thrown together in one life, and in this case, one conversation.

As Freddie Mercury sings in the opening lines of Bohemian Rhapsody, itself a song about contradictions, ‘Is this the real life?’


 

The story Jared tells me is about a meth addict who is experiencing acute withdrawals. She has been taken into the emergency department of Auckland Hospital, where Jared is doing a shift. He had nothing to do with the patient from a medical point of view, and yet the image of her, and of her suffering, has stayed with him. 

‘I remember distinctly the encounter,’ he says. ‘She was a young twenty-one or twenty-two year old. She was a P addict and was going through acute withdrawals. And, of course, the emergency department is not a place you can go to for acute withdrawals, there are other places for that. So, they couldn’t really treat her there. She had been injecting methamphetamine into the spaces underneath her fingernails to try and get it into her system, because she had used up all her veins and everywhere else, every other way of doing it. And because she had gone through rehab more than once it obviously hadn’t been successful. 

‘That one particularly stands out because for some reason, in that moment, I just felt prompted to pray for her. I just took a step back, while the doctor was dealing with her, and took a moment to pray. I don’t know what happened to her or whether she’s still alive or who knows. But, you know, there weren’t too many places like that where it just felt like you had to do that and that’s why that one stands out. I guess my heart just went out to her, this young girl who was a victim of some of her own decisions. Methamphetamine is so insidious like that. She was no longer really the product of her own decisions but a product of the drug addiction. She was miserable, she was convulsing on the bed and curling up into the foetal position and sweating, all of which is part of the withdrawals.’

I say to Jared that it sounds like a sudden outpouring of love on his part. All he says is, ‘A form of, yeah.’

But it is love, all the same, and it comes out of the same place as Jared’s desire to serve overseas. With a profound awareness of the human condition comes an outpouring of compassion, which not all people show. 

When I ask Jared to expand on those training years, and what he loved about them in particular, his answer reveals more about his heart for people in that context.

‘I guess it was the days where you interacted with patients,’ he says, ‘where you feel like you made a difference. You get more of those days as you progress through your career. But as a student you did feel a bit superfluous. You are just there to observe. At other times you got to do stuff but it was the days where you interacted with patients and felt like you were part of the process and made a difference, or at least part of a difference in that patient’s life. Those were the satisfying ones. You really do begin to be invited into people’s lives in a very privileged situation as a doctor, when they are often dealing with stuff that is emotionally quite dark for them. Medicine allows you to come into that place without having to establish a prior rapport, and hopefully help make a difference.’


 

Jared’s mum interrupts us with coffee. For a few moments we are drawn back into the present again. The mundane. And also, the glorious. I witness the interaction of mother and son for the first time, and the contrasting images are present here too—the unconditional love of a parent for her child, and the sorrow she must be feeling at his deterioration.

 There’s an extra treat for us both today. Ruth has brought up a citrus slice, which she places on a plate on the corner of the bed to my right. She’s brought some for Jared too.

‘Do you want a plate?’ she asks him.

‘Yeah, I will do,’ he answers. ‘It’s real crumbly.’


 

Jared’s voice is much stronger today, I note, as he dips back into his story to lay the foundation of how he met Hannah. His laryngitis must have resolved itself. His voice is still thinner than I suspect it should be, but talking doesn’t require as much of an effort. Externally, there’s been a marked improvement over the past couple of days. Internally, however, it’s a different story.

‘Generally, not too much has changed,’ Jared says. ‘I think each day there’s a sense that I’m a little bit more weary. Just don’t quite have the same energy levels as the previous day, at least how I remember it anyway. Even now, I haven’t done a lot today, but I am a little bit wearier than I feel like I have been. We’ve used the hoist for the first time, to get out of the bed. So, I got to have some Lazeboy time in the other room—a change of scenery for a little bit.’

‘How was that?’ I ask, expecting that it was a bright moment in the weekend.

‘Less liberating than I thought it would be,’ he says. He smiles at this. When Jared smiles his teeth seem larger than they need to be, and I realise that he has lost so much weight the features of his face have taken on odd proportions. ‘I think it’s because I’m still stuck—I can’t move as and when I want to. But it’s still nice to not be in the bed the whole time.’

‘You’ve been busy with people over the weekend—it must be tiring, to see so many visitors?’

‘It can be. There certainly have been days where it literally has been one person after another and you realise you haven’t had a chance just to lie down and have a sleep or a nap, and that you need it. So, it is a tiring process, yeah. Some people are easier to entertain than others, as well, I might add.’

‘What is the weariness due to?’

‘It’s hard to nail it down to one specific thing but it probably is a sense of progressive de-conditioning—and I’ll get to a point where that weariness will probably take over.’


 

In the two years prior to getting sick, several things were occurring at once for Jared. There was ongoing training and a growing sense of who Dr Jared Noel would be. There was a growing bank of knowledge around the specialties that he could choose to move into. There was a growing sense of his calling. And then there was Hannah.

When I hear Jared speak about this period, I feel excited on his behalf. Jealous, almost, of the opportunities that lay before him. Of course, the awareness that he gets sick and that most of these opportunities shut down tempers that excitement. But to have these things emerging concurrently at such a young age—how fortunate Jared was. And, yes, how tragic his story became.

But, for a season, he could not have been happier. 

‘Yeah. Overall, the clinical years did hone that understanding of what my sense of calling was—because it was me starting to put into practice what I had done all this learning for. There were days I would come home and it was just exhausting, and wouldn’t be that fun. But there would be days that you come home and you would be like, yeah, this is what I’m here to do. And this is what I love. And when I did the surgical specialties, that particularly energised me. I wasn’t going to write off any specialty—I was going to be fairly open about it. But there were times when I did some of those specialties and came home at the end of the day and felt particularly energised by it. You feel that yes, this is one of the specialties I could easily do and quite happily spend my lifetime doing.’

‘And you must have been thinking about the practicalities of taking some of those things overseas?’ 

‘Yes, and one of the appeals of surgery was that a surgeon is quite a valuable person overseas. There’s lots of different fields of medicine that are valuable overseas but surgery in particular—a surgeon can be hard to find. Offering just basic services can make a big impact on people’s lives.’


 

I picture Jared as that trainee doctor, tasting possibilities as his vocation takes form, driven daily by a sense of his greater purpose and where it might take him. The future is a wide open landscape with multiple roads leading off towards a discernible yet undiscovered destination. And when Hannah enters the frame, it only confirms the direction Jared is headed in.

‘What was Hannah’s vision in your early conversations with her—was it similar to yours?’

‘Yes—she had come off the back of doing an elective in Nepal and had spent some time there. A little bit of that elective had been in Scotland as well. Because of that experience she had really developed an affinity for wanting to do what she could in impoverished countries. Both of us were completely open to the idea of where—neither of us had any particular location in mind.’


 

The Jared and Hannah love story began in a fitting context, the International Christian Medical and Dental Association conference hosted in Sydney, in July 2006. Hannah would say later that Jared always maintained she was there to find a husband, a claim she vigorously disputes. However, that’s pretty much what happened. Jared was in attendance thanks to some last minute sponsorship, a feat for which he had an uncanny knack, as numerous overseas trips attested. In Jared’s telling of the story, their meeting around a fire on a cold, Australian winter’s morning, had as much to do with the time difference between Auckland and Sydney as any desire to meet the person of their dreams.

‘All the New Zealanders were two hours ahead of the Australians, and everybody else was hours and hours behind,’ Jared remembers. He has a different way of speaking when he recounts stories related to their romance. There’s a tangible ease to his storytelling, whether because he’s told the story countless times or because they are stories from which he derives some comfort. My feeling is that it’s the latter. They are stories he likes to tell, as opposed to stories he feels a duty to tell.

‘So, we would wake really early in the morning,’ he continues, ‘and it was freezing cold. It was up in the Blue Mountains. We would be huddling around the fire at six in the morning, waiting for the breakfast to be served. She, at the time, was in her first year of work actually, at Dunedin University, as a first year graduate. We just met and started chatting, as you do—formalities and stuff like that. It’s been long enough ago now that some of the details have lapsed. We quickly identified early on that we had a lot of things in common, obviously. One was that we were at this conference—so, medicine, being Christian, we were just chatting away and talking about different things. But one of the things that did come up in the first couple of hours was wanting to take medicine overseas, and the fact we had this mutual passion for it.’

‘In your first couple of hours you identified this?’

‘We had a couple of hours to kill before breakfast,’ he says, and chuckles at the memory of it. ‘But what ended up happening is we spent all day …’ Jared pauses here to use a remote to turn on the cooling fan, saying that he is getting a little warm. It is freezing outside, and not particularly warm inside, so I figure the story is affecting him. ‘We ended up spending all day talking to each other, just going from session to session and just catching up and talking—it’s just how it worked. But during that day we developed this pretty good understanding of who each other was, and the values that we had and our backgrounds, our upbringing and the passions that drove us, stuff like that. It was just one of those things that developed really, really fast over about a day, and then the next day as well. Then we exchanged phone numbers and details at the end of the conference, because she was going back to Dunedin and I was going back to Auckland. I emailed her—because at that stage I had developed an interest …’ There’s another chuckle, more bashful this time, and for a moment I see a younger Jared emerge, vulnerable in a new way. ‘I emailed her probably about a day after I got back, and said if you ever happen to be in Auckland and you’re interested and I’m here, I’ll take you out for dinner. And then she replied and said, Well, I’ve got some leave coming up, I can fly up. It was one of the easiest dates I ever got from somebody in another city, so …,’ Jared breaks into a great smile, ‘… so we ended up having a long distance relationship for six months.’

Jared tells his story as a meet-cute, but I’m hearing it in the context of the bigger narrative—his sense of call—and see that his vision was so profound it was drawing him into marriage in the same way that it drew him into medicine.

‘Your vision is part of what attracts you to this other person?’ I suggest.

‘Yep,’ he says.

‘It was shaping you enormously, wasn’t it?’

‘Yes, and of course once we’d got married and everything—before I was diagnosed—we were this Christian medical couple who both had a desire to serve God in the developing world, in whatever ways possible—with our jobs and our vocations. That’s what our identity was. That’s who we thought we were anyway. And that was the path that we thought we were tracking down.’

Jared is speaking with great enthusiasm at this point, as if he’s shedding a burden. It’s cathartic.

‘And obviously that all completely changed with the diagnosis.’


 

Jared tells me something hilarious. He admits to me that he had ‘criteria’ for who he wanted to marry, and that Hannah met these criteria—but in her own way. I ask him to clarify what he means, and he says that she wasn’t the person he would have imagined his wife was going to be.

‘Tell me about that,’ I press him, and for once I expect Jared to politely decline. But he doesn’t. He answers—in the way that Jared does sometimes.

‘To be honest, I can’t because it was so long ago. But I think I just had perhaps a more … you develop a list of the qualities you want in a person and she actually did meet those fundamental qualities, it’s just that she was packaged in a slightly different way, I think … more than anything else.’

I am laughing at Jared now, and he is smiling in response. There’s something of the emotionally-stunted genius about some of Jared’s stories—no faulting his heart, but he’s almost too honest for his own good. I feel myself wanting to give him some guidance or at least soften his words. I see for the first time the Jared people often speak about fondly, but with a roll of their eyes. 

’In hindsight, she couldn’t have been a better person for me,’ he adds, and I pause, hoping for more. He grants me just a little. ‘And in hindsight, through this whole journey as well, these last five and a half years with cancer—I can’t see how anyone else could have been better for me to journey with. She’s been, you know, the wind beneath my wings so to speak—in terms of giving me the energy and the strength to keep going.’


 

As if to illustrate the juxtaposition of things amazing with things broken throughout our conversation, Jared’s joy at sharing with me how he met Hannah is suddenly offset by its counterpart—a moment of sadness that comes over him unexpectedly, as I bring the discussion back around to the fusion of his calling with his budding relationship. 

I say to Jared that I’m struck again by how deep was his sense of calling and, in equal measure, by the sense of injustice that it was all cut short. 

‘Your calling fuses with marriage,’ I say to him, ‘so, it’s not just a calling that is cut short, but your marriage as well.’ 

‘The sense of marriage being cut short is a whole different can of worms,’ he says, and he chuckles, but this time it’s not through enjoyment. ‘It is a huge thing—a huge thing. Particularly eleven months into your marriage. We were newly-weds and we only got to experience that newly-wed phase for eleven months, because our lives were shattered after that—not destroyed, but shattered. We were putting the pieces back together—trying to—because they just took on a whole different sort of … and we … it’s difficult, for me, personally. It’s difficult for Hannah as well, but for different reasons, I guess.’ 

‘Did you feel any personal guilt at the time of diagnosis?’

‘I feel guilt now. And I know I’m not guilty, but I still feel it.’ 

‘What do you feel guilt about?’

‘Well, when we got married I wanted a different life for Hannah. And I feel like, even though there is no responsibility I can take on myself, I feel like I have sold her a dummy, so to speak.’ He says this quite forcefully, to my surprise. ‘That she has ended up with a dud. And I know it’s not my personal fault, but it’s me ultimately that’s carrying it all. I still feel guilty now.’

‘I guess, if it had happened five years into marriage when you had journeyed together …’

‘We were still idealistic,’ he says, cutting me off. ‘Are we still idealistic?’ he adds, to himself. ‘We were still fresh-faced anyway, and experiencing life for the first time.’

‘It might have occurred to me to say to a new bride, off you go, I don’t want to take you through this. Did those thoughts occur to you?’

‘Not literally, but certainly there was just this massive sense of, I guess it comes back to feeling guilt. Me wanting to apologise and just go, I’m so sorry—this is not the life that I wanted to give you. Particularly as a guy, because I think a guy carries a certain instinctive persona into a marriage, of what they think they should be doing for their wife, and providing for her.’

‘You were inviting her into a dream as well, a dream that had also been hers.’

‘Yeah, yeah—all of that. Not just the fact that it was the absence of that—that the dream got shattered—but also the fact that I’ve had to drag her down the pathway that we’ve ended up going down. Which is the one that we have had for the last five and a half years—of chemo, multiple rounds of surgery, all of that kind of stuff. This—me being at home and her looking after me.’

‘So, not just your vision cut short, but also Hannah’s.’ 

‘Mm. Yeah. And in some ways, Elise is at least one thing that I have been able to give her. And that was part of the reason why we decided to go ahead and have Elise. This is something I can at least give her—part of that dream, anyway.’


 

Before I came to see Jared today, I was reading about a scene from Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, and in light of our conversation it reminds me that there is a perverse way to fuse life’s beauty with its ugliness. And Christians, in my experience, are particularly good at it. It’s the process of beatifying suffering, of minimising its impact by glossing over any or all of suffering with a veneer of spirituality—much the same way that classic iconography beatifies the suffering of Christ, by depicting even the crucified man as blissfully untouched by human pain. I tell Jared about my reading, and he is immediately attentive. 

Dostoevsky depicts a scene in which his characters are contemplating a painting by the German artist Hans Holbein. Dostoevsky himself was fascinated by the painting, and by the grotesque depiction of the crucified body. In the novel, the character of Prince Myshkin, the ‘idiot’ himself, refuses to look at it for fear it will cause him to lose his faith, something that has already happened to the character Ippolit. Dostoevsky’s point is that even the disciples would struggle to believe resurrection was possible if they truly beheld the full horror of suffering and death.  

I ask Jared about this, as someone who has suffered and is staring death in the face—about the reality of suffering versus its beatification, particularly among people of faith.

‘It’s interesting,’ he begins. ‘The beatification often comes from people who haven’t suffered. Or they have suffered a little bit, and therefore have some interest but haven’t truly suffered. There are varying degrees of suffering, and what is suffering for you is going to be very different from what is suffering for me. I get comments all the time—people leap to the defence of Christ, or the defence of God—not saying necessarily that there’s a reason for this, but unable to allow for the fact that God is allowing the suffering to happen; that there is some kind of purpose, some kind of reason.

‘I was just commenting to mum earlier—everyone likes to say how I will feel God’s grace and peace during this time. Everybody is telling me what I will feel. And I think that, to me, is leaping to the defence of Christ, or the Christian experience, by a person who hasn’t experienced it.

‘Whilst I have suffered during this experience, I don’t feel like I have truly, truly suffered. This, again, is another pithy saying that I hate to hear: Christ doesn’t give us anything that we can’t handle. The problem I have with that is, what about all the people in the world who go through suffering who don’t overcome and who die? I flicked on Al Jazeera yesterday, in fact, and it’s a depressive state of world affairs at the moment. Usually, there’s one thing going on in the world somewhere, but at the moment there are multiple sites around the world of conflict and war and suffering—and atrocities that are almost the worst I have seen committed in a long time: Islamic State in Iraq, the Jordanian war, and what’s building up in the Ukraine. And then there was the Jewish and Hamas conflict. The problem is, a lot of these people die. You come across a village and there’s a mass grave of one hundred people—well, those hundred people didn’t overcome their suffering, did they? They are tortured; horrific atrocities.’ 

‘And in many situations that suffering is happening to people because they are Christians,’ I add.

‘Yes, particularly in the IS situation. So, I don’t think that you can say that if you encounter suffering that you will always overcome it. And I think you have to have an understanding of suffering that accounts for the many, many people—which would probably count in the millions in the current world—that don’t overcome. Famines in Africa, for example. That’s suffering that people don’t overcome. The beatification of suffering, in some ways, doesn’t actually take into account those people, the reality of it. In reality, it doesn’t work. My faith has always been a very pragmatic faith. I sort of look at the reality of what goes on versus what’s taught—as in, ideology. If the ideology doesn’t match the reality well I think something’s wrong with the ideology.’ 

‘Are you becoming more intolerant with those pithy sayings?’

‘Yeah, there’s a lot of them that I can be intolerant of. And you switch off to them after a while. They are meant in good heart, the people who say them, but …’

‘Do they give you any comfort at all?’

‘Erm. No. I just read them and write them off.’  


 

Jared is looking weary as our conversation reaches the hour mark. When the fatigue comes over him his eyelids fall heavy and he looks through me, into the sleep dimension. He never falters though—he keeps talking for as long as I can generate points of conversation. Most days it’s my conscience that brings the dialogue to a close, not Jared’s lack of stamina.

I tell him that I think I’ve worn him out.

‘I started off weary I think,’ he says, graciously. ‘I don’t think I feel any more weary now. I feel more awake.’

And then I say, ‘How will you judge the point where we need to stop talking; where it’s just too much?’

‘Totally?’ he asks, clarifying whether I mean today, or in days or weeks to come. ‘I don’t know. I guess we’ll just know when we’re there. We’ll keep going for as long as we can.’

I point out how much energy he seems to have drawn from the friends who gathered in his room the night before. I know that they have walked beside him on his journey, and I take as read that his ideas around life’s beauty and ugliness, and the juxtaposition of faith and doubt, hope and despair, have been shaped in the midst of this community of co-sufferers, co-believers. I ask Jared how he would instruct his daughter about the importance of finding such a community.

‘Through whatever walk of life she is in, she should find a faith community,’ he says to me. ‘Sometimes there’ll be a season where she won’t fully agree or fully like every aspect of that faith community. But there’ll be seasons that she will, and she’ll love it. And don’t be a shopper,’ he says to Elise. ‘Sometimes you’ll have the luxury of choosing many different faith communities. And you shouldn’t become a shopper so much, but you should also find the one that enables you to outwork your faith the best way possible—not one that stifles it.’

‘You’ve had a strong community behind you over the past few years,’ I say to Jared. ‘They are still behind you. What characteristics should she look for in a community?’

 ‘She needs to challenge and stretch herself. If it’s a community that agrees with everything she does it’s not going to challenge her. You should always read and engage with faith community stuff that you disagree with, because it will challenge you. But disagree for a reason—you need to know why. You might find that you change your mind about things. Does that answer the question?’

It does, I tell him, but there’s more I want to say about friendship. And about isolation. The more I listen to Jared, the more aware I become of how alone he is in his suffering—by that I mean the experience of it, that existential loneliness, the isolation of the soul and mind. It occurs to me, here at the end of the conversation, that the most difficult juxtaposition in life is the presence of both love and loneliness, which are often experienced simultaneously. The knowledge of one makes the experience of the other almost intolerable.

‘At the moment it’s okay,’ Jared says, interpreting my use of ‘isolation’ literally. ‘We just had this stream of visitors come through and I’m tired. That’s balanced by the fact that I am an extrovert and if I had nobody come to visit me I really would be lonely—and tired. And I do remind myself of my clinical depression. That was a period that I was also quite lonely. And if I was going through this then, I wouldn’t be having the same number of visitors come through. I’ve developed quite a relationship and friendship network over the last few years, just through my extroversion. But yeah, I could never stand to live in a house by myself. I get bored of my own company.’ He smiles at this, and I can’t help but laugh.

How do you live today when the future is, at the very most, short, and, at the least, gone altogether? My life, and my world, is both simultaneously beautiful and ugly. I can’t help but admire the beauty of the world, and lament the brokenness of it.

I have realised that this simultaneous juxtaposition is required for us to be able to appreciate either of these extremes. We need ugliness in the world in order to appreciate the beauty, and vice versa. It’s through my ugliness, my brokenness, that I now appreciate the world in a whole new light. It’s my suffering that makes the world that much brighter, that much more colourful, and that much more worth living. It is cancer that has brought a whole new meaning to life, even if that life is much shorter than anticipated.

Conversely, it’s the beauty of life that allows me to recognise the ugly—the injustice, the oppression, the suffering, the poverty, the needless loss of life, the insatiable greed for material goods. Recognising this does not empower me to better avoid it, but to better be a part of the solution of it. I think we instinctively use this recognising ability to avoid the ugly, instead of perhaps being the solution to it. Being the solution to the ugly and the brokenness …

That’s powerful …

… or, even better … it’s beautiful. 

Jared Noel, The Boredom Blog

‘Beautiful … and ugly’

November 27, 2009